I have a question about the proverb: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder".

In this proverb, is beauty a materialist concept or an idealist concept, and why?

In my opinion, the concept of beauty belongs to idealism since different people have different ideas about what is beautiful.

My thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg, so I hope someone can clarify and explain this view in a more scientific or more convincing manner.

  • I don't think materialism/idealism is the best pair of terms to use here. More fitting would be subjective vs. objective concepts of beauty. – virmaior Sep 13 '15 at 5:35
  • But "beauty" is also a social construct, highly dependent on time, place, culture, society... in this sense, it is "materialistic". – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Sep 13 '15 at 17:58
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    so argues the subjective theory of beauty. The objective theory held to by Plato doesn't accept that. – virmaior Sep 14 '15 at 4:14
  • Let me recall that the feeling of beauty is certainly different than the idea of beauty. – sure Sep 14 '15 at 8:22
  • You ask for clarification. I believe you are trying to ask: "Is there a universal or absolute standard of beauty." Most scientists, materialists, or empiricists would answer: No, it is a matter of "subjective" opinion, history, culture, taste. An "idealist" might answer: Yes, because it is prior to experience and transcends circumstance. The parable is clearly not "idealist" in this sense. – Nelson Alexander Sep 14 '15 at 19:35

It seems like different philosophers could claim one of the following:

  1. Beauty is just a name that humans happen to put to things;
  2. Beauty is a real thing, but it's an abstract thing;
  3. Beauty is a real thing itself because it's a material property of a thing.

The last two approaches are realist (beauty is a real thing), the first is a nominalist approach (it's just a name).

In the case of the saying you cite, beauty is not a real thing, it is instead a name that different people happen to put to things that they find attractive.

Of course, not all philosophers have agreed with this. As Mozibur points out, Plato (and Platonists) considered Beauty to be an abstract form (and thus real). Similarly, Aquinas considered Beauty to be one of the transcendentals (along with Truth and Goodness).

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    Don't you mean the first, not "third," is nominalist? – Nelson Alexander Sep 14 '15 at 19:00

The quote is literally supposed to mean that beauty is subjective, one may believe that something is gorgeous while another may say that it's hideous. What you were really looking for is the distinction between subject and object, but maybe I'm not the one to tell you what you were looking for.

In terms of idealism and materialsm, a similar position may be taken. Some may say that the distinction between subject and object corresponds to Descartes's distinction between the thought and the extension, the mind and the body. If you believe in this correspondence, then you might say that beauty is an idealist concept according to this quote, since idealism holds the body as a derivative of the fundamental mind.

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Plato has a notion of Beauty (Kalon) as a Form; so there it's Ideal - as all Forms are ideal; but given the close association of the two Forms - Beauty and the Good (Agathon), the word Beauty is not now perhaps the best translation of the word Kalon - where it's closer to noble, fine and excellent.

It's this notion that Keats refers to at the end of his Ode to a Grecian Urn:

Beauty is truth, truth is beauty - that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

Beauty, in this sense is closer to the aesthetic notion of the sublime - mixing in the Great or greater than the Great - ie beyond and therefore Transcendent; but it has gone through many other difficult changes: for example, Baudelaire and Hugo mixed in the Grotesque; this signalled for the aesthetician Susan Sontag in taking the long view of modernity in Europe (and through Europe, elsewhere) that our era, like some other eras

are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity...the truths we respect are born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering (review of Selected Essay by Simone Weil).

So also painters like Munch, Schiele or Bacon.

Notice the close connection Sontag implicitly assumes to Agathon, even for art born in affliction - it affirms it's authenticity.

But the proverb is not referring to any of this, but purely to subjectivity; it's comparable to another proverb:

One mans meat is another mans poison

Still, one can connect these views (Subjective to Ideal) by noting that though the valuation of Beauty differs, man by man, culture by culture; that there is this kind of judgement is a kind of constant ie an Ideal Form.

For example, take calligraphy; what is considered as beautiful script in medieval Europe, Arabia and China differ in particularities, in their form; but still, such a notion does hold; and one should expect it to hold - one has to step a little higher to notice ie more ideally (or abstractly).

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If beauty is a variable "in the eye" of the beholder, it is a materialist concept, even if "eye" is taken metaphorically, as with music or scent, for example.

Idealism would not grant that Beauty itself, so to speak, varies between beholders, as it transcends their circumstances, sense organs, and histories. As others have noted, the error comes in equating "idealism" with "subjectivity," especially when we have embodied subjects forming incommensurable "ideas" inside their own uniquely positioned nervous systems.

What the parable expresses is closer to an empirical, Humean concept of the relativity of "taste" than an idealist, Kantian concept of transcendental aesthetic judgment. But note that modern "idealism" is very slippery and even an empiricist like Locke can be called an "idealist" of sorts.

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